With Hurricane and COVID-19 Preparedness, Communities Are Damned if they Do and Damned if they Don’t

August 6, 2020 | 11:21 am
Adrienne Hollis
Former Contributor

This IS a very unique hurricane season, as described in an informative blog post by my colleague Astrid Caldas.

Not only did we have named storms earlier in the season than ever before, but hurricane season arrived in the middle of a global pandemic, or as I like to call it – a syndemic. As we navigate the present climate crisis/COVID-19 syndemic and prepare for future climatic events, I implore you to pay attention to the voices of environmental justice (EJ) leaders on the frontlines, who are doing their best to protect communities. It is imperative that we listen to these organizations who are leading the work on climate change and readiness in the time of COVID-19, because that information should provide the foundation for adaptation and emergency preparedness measures necessary for communities to thrive in the face of multiple challenges like these.

A Short Tale of Two Leaders

I had the pleasure of interviewing two of those EJ leaders – Reverend Leo Woodberry from Florence, South Carolina and Mr. Hilton Kelley from Port Arthur, Texas. I will spend more time discussing their activities in a later blog post, but I wanted to share just a few tidbits with you here.

The climate crisis, environmental contamination, COVID-19, and voting rights are just a few of the issues these EJ leaders and their organizations address. At the end of the day (as we say in the South) these two very different, honorable denizens of communities impacted by environmental hazards, compounded by the double threats from the climate crisis and COVID-19 and intensified by systemic racism, have taken the mantra that “we are all in this together” to heart. They have taken on the responsibility of doing what they can to protect those they love – the people in their communities. Although their paths to ‘here’ differ, their communities are very much alike. They are both suffering from the onslaught of environmental assaults, which only worsen during hurricane season and COVID-19.

Reverend Leo Woodberry is the Pastor of Kingdom Living Temple (KLT) in Florence, South Carolina. Every year, he holds an annual ‘Creating a Climate for Change’ conference, which is very well attended and calls for immediate action to address the climate crisis. Reverend Woodberry talks about action and then acts. Most recently, he opened up his church to a food shelter that had lost its space and has obtained outdoor showers and sinks for the homeless, so they can help protect themselves against COVID-19.

Mr. Hilton Kelley is the founder of Community In-Power and Development Association, Inc (CIDA, Inc) in Port Arthur, Texas. He is the first African American male to win the coveted Goldman prize–also known as the “Green Nobel Prize” –for his work in Port Arthur. In addition, earlier this month he was presented with the Black Business Professionals of Southeast Texas “Man of the Month” award. When discussing the award, he wrote “It’s nothing like knowing the communities you serve appreciate what you do, and they are paying attention and support what you do.”

Responding to the Syndemic Crises

I wanted to find out if these two EJ activists believe their cities are safe from COVID-19 and whether they thought their city, county and state are prepared for climate augmented extreme weather in the time of COVID-19. What I found out was alarming to me and should be alarming to you.

In her blog post, Dr. Astrid Caldas states that preparedness is essential for people of color and those living with low-income. That is an undeniable fact. However, it should not be the responsibility of our communities to determine the best way to prepare or to feel like they are forced to prepare because there is no alternative. Sadly, that is the stark reality and the only choice for most communities of color.

When I spoke with Reverend Woodberry and Mr. Kelley about their concerns regarding hurricane season, particularly while dealing with COVID-19, I realized that both of them, along with countless other community organizations, have stepped up and taken responsibility for the protection of their communities in the absence of adequate government response. Here I show how these two leaders are stepping up together with the communities they serve.

Reverend Leo Woodberry, Greenfaith

Three Conclusions About Emergency Preparedness in Port Arthur, Texas and Florence, South Carolina

  • There is a lack of emergency preparedness protocols, plans, or programs by local governments to help people stay safe during extreme weather events, particularly in the time of COVID-19. Where such plans exist, there is a failure to communicate that information to vulnerable communities.

Both Mr. Kelley and Reverend Woodberry were not aware of any existing plans in their cities to deal with the combined impacts of extreme weather and COVID-19. Mr. Kelley observed that there has been no discussion about COVID-19 and hurricanes from either first responders or the Port Arthur mayor. Mr. Kelley did point out that there have been some public service announcements related to evacuations for hurricanes in general, and referenced the Southeast Texas Alerting Network system (STAN)–a county-wide system that provides emergency and outreach messages.

Reverend Woodberry was not aware of any special safety protocols or programs in place in Florence related to hurricanes, COVID-19, and emergency preparedness. Although his organization has been engaged in talks with officials since March about the need to be prepared for extreme weather in conjunction with COVID-19, those discussions have yet to result in actions.

  • Communities fear that they are not safe from COVID-19 and extreme weather.

Mr. Kelley described what would happen in the face of evacuations from hurricanes in his community. His family usually travels north – to higher ground – to places where he has extended family, to avoid the worst of the weather. However, some people in the community may not have that option. Community members call Mr. Kelley to find out what his plans are, mobilize and ultimately end up creating ‘car caravans’ with maybe 5 or 6 people in each vehicle, trying to escape the extreme weather. He pointed out:

“Now you have to do what you have to do – work together and survive together, people travel in caravans because a lot of people do not have transportation or cannot afford to travel north alone, in individual cars. People go as far north as possible. A lot of residents do not know where to go but they travel together for safety. It is difficult to practice social distancing in an emergency situation, even when it comes to hotel rooms, because you have to share. You have to deal with the more immediate issue – an approaching storm, which could take your life if you don’t get out of harm’s way. You have to work together and engage in safe practices, roll down the windows for fresh air, cough in your sleeves or carry a towel.”

Reverend Woodberry’s response to hurricane season is quite different. In the aftermath of hurricanes past, communities struggled to rebuild. Reverend Woodberry is active in preparing his community and surrounding communities for extreme weather and has been storing food and water in case people are forced to evacuate. He is in the process of having his church community building licensed to serve as an evacuation center during extreme weather.

He is very worried about the safety of residents. COVID-19 has layered impacts on health care access and to facilities and it has also impacted businesses and jobs. In addition, people who live in food scarce areas or who have pre-existing conditions and who are disproportionately impacted by adverse environmental exposures are impacted. The very active 2020 hurricane season is compounding existing inequities and magnifying risks for vulnerable populations.

Part of the Reverend’s concern is how to shelter in place or even check into shelters where social distancing is not being practiced. He has been advocating for an increase in the number of shelters so that people do not risk their lives when they evacuate to one. Without allocating extra material and human resources to pre-landfall evacuation planning, social distancing, and other public health measures to prevent COVID-19 spread will go out the window. So, communities are stepping up. Reverend Woodberry’s church has a sanctuary space which will be used during the hurricane season as a shelter. Then, if there are outages of water or electricity, as there were during Hurricane Florence, communities can still access food, sinks, outdoor showers, and solar chargers that can be used to charge cell phones. He also has walkie-talkies for communication when cell towers are damaged. Reverend Woodberry spoke with the Red Cross during Hurricane Florence about getting cots from them to use in his sanctuary, but so far, nothing has been done.

  • People are still at risk from COVID-19 and many continue to die from the virus. In some instances, pre-existing conditions may play some role, but others are not wearing masks or practicing social distancing.

In Port Arthur, Mr. Kelley believes the number of deaths is increasing. He stated that he knows of at least thirty residents who have died from complications due to COVID-19. That is high for the city, even though it is a city of 50,000 residents. He stated that there is many African Americans who are succumbing to COVID-19, although with hospitalization, some survive. Pre-existing conditions have played a large role in the outcomes he observed.

According to Reverend Woodberry, in his community, the South Carolina Department of Environmental Health and Environmental Control, in partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina and other health agencies, have been responsive to COVID-19. These groups have made testing available in several places. But, when it comes to COVID-19 cases in an eight-county area, his county (Florence County) ranks number 2 in COVID-19 cases. He observed that a lot of people are still not wearing masks and continue to have large gatherings, and stated that he is “really, really worried about COVID-19 because it is spiking out of control.”

Hilton Kelley, 2011 Goldman Prize Recipient/Goldman Environmental Prize

Final Thoughts and Call to Action

Reverend Woodberry stated that communities know what areas are prone to flooding. I agree. As both Mr. Kelley and Reverend Woodberry pointed out, there does not need to be a hurricane to have flooding and evacuations. According to Mr. Kelley, people have been preoccupied with COVID-19 and have forgotten about the annual hurricane season and about flooding from the rainy season, which occurs even if there is no hurricane.

Low-lying areas, where many vulnerable communities live, can be flooded even without the large amounts of rain from a hurricane. There is also flooding from issues like clogged drainage ditches or poor infrastructure. Although people sometimes place sandbags around doors and walls, there are very real health threats from flooding and its aftermath – bacteria and mold, both of which impact the respiratory system, increasing your risk for COVID-19 health effects. He observed that communities must contend with a “double whammy”–the rainy season and hurricanes.

This is why it is so important that communities are prepared in advance of a storm. They need funding in order to have resource materials in place. As Reverend Woodberry said, it does not make sense to wait until after a hurricane or some other type of extreme weather event occurs and hope that people will give donations–food, money, water, diapers, and repair materials. Those should be stored in advance to support a faster and more resilient recovery.

Cities and states must really think out of the box–to consider necessities like portable showers, sinks and toilets and to provide tents where there are no indoor shelters, as well as having supplies to protect against COVID-19 exposure (i.e. masks, gloves) on hand. They should consider using nontraditional spaces for shelters, such as churches or warehouses. In addition, access to provisions and materials for recovery is really important and can be shared with other communities when necessary. Hilton Kelley so aptly opined, “we are all in this together. We have to work together and adhere to the guidelines around social distancing and wearing personal protective equipment. We have to be patient, help one another and support each other. You have to do what you have to do. People are going to have to work together and survive together.”

Although Mr. Kelley’s and Reverend Woodberry’s responses to the threats posed by extreme weather and COVID-19 differed, there was one undeniable underlying message. Communities are forced to devise their own emergency preparedness plans. That should not be the case. Cities, counties, and states must be more proactive when it comes to pre-hurricane preparedness. And they must ensure that any plan that is developed is done so with input from the community and is communicated TO the community in an effective and efficient manner.

Whether a community is forced to evacuate because they do not feel confident in their city’s response to hurricanes and other extreme weather events or they are forced to stay but are proactive in making preparations to ‘weather’ a extreme weather event, they still must deal with the compounding factor of COVID-19.

Evacuate or Stay. According to Mr. Kelley, “you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” That is the reality.

I could not have said it better.